Other Linux Distros’ View of Ubuntu’s Unity: It Ain’t Pretty

Published on: May 17, 2011
Last Updated: May 17, 2011

You might expect other distributions to be as divided about Ubuntu’s new Unity desktop as users are.

That is, at least among the vocal, you might expect to find that the condemnation slightly outweighs the praise, but that both sides are passionate in their beliefs.

However, that is not the case. If anything, developers working on other distributions are surprisingly lukewarm about Unity.

Most are in no rush to package Unity — if at all — and many express technical or practical objections to it.

Others are waiting to see how Unity is received, but even the handful that have definitely decided to package it express no great enthusiasm.

It’s a lackluster response that may not only suggest Unity’s future, but also an increasingly isolated position for Ubuntu in the free and open source software community.

Qualified Support

Last week when I surveyed major distributions and Ubuntu derivatives about their plans for Unity, only two replied that they were planning to include it as a default in an upcoming release.

The developer hacktolive, who maintains Super OS, a Ubuntu-derivative, said that he plans to ship with Unity as the default desktop because, “I always try to stick as much as possible to Ubuntu.”

At first, hacktolive says, he questioned using Unity as a default because of the hardware-accelerated drivers that it requires, but relented after learning that Ubuntu shipped with a fallback desktop that resembles GNOME 2.32.

The developer added that “I also liked Unity (minus some details), so I think it is an evolution.”

The only other distribution that mentioned that it was planning to ship with Unity was Tuquito, a Ubuntu derivative developed in Argentina.

According to Mauro Torres, Tuquito’s decision, like Super OS’s, is that “we try to follow the same line [as] Ubuntu.”

However, in a decision that suggests some uncertainty about Ubuntu, Torres added that Tuquito plans to ship two versions, one with Unity and one with GNOME, “so that people can choose.”

No doubt other distributions whose representatives did not reply are shipping Unity, or will do so eventually.

However, what is striking about the responses I did receive is how unenthusiastic the decisions to ship Unity sound. The support seems qualified at best.

Major Linux Distros Play A Waiting Game

By contrast, the major distributions are in no hurry to include Unity. They will probably include it eventually, but dependency problems and Unity’s still-rapid development are hampering efforts to package or discuss it.

At Debian, work with Unity is being done by the Ayatana Packagers, a project to include Ubuntu technologies in Debian.

The intent is not to promote Unity as the default interface in Debian, but, according to project administrator Evgeni Golov, to encourage “freedom of choice, where the user has to decide whether he wants GNOME 3, KDE 4, Xfce, LXDE, Elementary, Enlightenment, MeeGo, Unity, awesome, GNUStep, twm, fluxbox or whatever strange mix of those (and other) components on his machine.”

The Ayatana Packagers have released a number of packages, but so far, none are for Unity, even though an Intent to Package notice was posted five months ago in early January.

Golov explains that the effort has been slowed by dependency problems, including some with libraries not maintained by The Ayatana Packagers.

He adds that “another problem is that at the moment Unity is moving fast with bug fixes and new features,” which means that packaging a stable and current version is difficult.

However, Adnan Hodzic, who filed the Intent to Package, still hopes to have Unity ready for the next official Debian release.

Golov suggests that including Unity would help to change Debian’s image of being slow to include new technologies.

Other leading distributions are facing similar delays. At Fedora, Red Hat developer Adam Williamson is packaging Unity because “I wanted to check it out and figured packaging it should be about as easy as installing Ubuntu.

It wasn’t, but by then my native stubbornness kicked in and now I want to package it more or less because it’s there.

I doubt it’ll work terribly well . . . it’ll sorta more or less work but have lots of rough edges and not be something the upstream Unity team would be happy to show off.”

Williamson stresses, though, that his efforts are personal. “There’s been exactly no distribution-wide discussion of this; it’s not some kind of official approach to Unity or anything like that. Fedora as a whole has no policy or opinion on Unity. Ditto for Red Hat.”

In openSUSE, Nelson Marques embarked on a solo effort of his own, and, like Williamson, soon found himself running into difficulties.

Problems with the dependencies on Compiz and the Zeitgeist, as well as the supported video drivers actually made him abandon his efforts for a time, although he has since returned to them.

So far, Marques says, “I’m the only one working on it” and “the implementation never reached a state that would be peaceful for users.”

Eventually, he plans to release a Live CD with openSUSE and Unity, but he is in no hurry to see Unity become a standard part of the distribution.

“I still have some concerns about if it should be implemented in the next cycle or [whether we should wait] for an additional cycle,” he says. Evidently openSUSE, like Debian and Fedora, do not consider Unity an urgent priority.

Derivatives And Unity

Distrowatch lists 75 distributions based on Ubuntu. About a third of these derivatives exist to provide an alternative interface, so for them the question of using Unity does not arise.

However, among the remaining derivatives whose representatives answered my queries, the reasons for not using Unity are almost as numerous as the derivatives themselves.

For some, like gNewSense, the question of whether to use Unity is one for the mid to long term future — “after the teething issues have been sorted out,” as lead developer Karl Goetz says.

For others, like Trisquel, the issue is Unity’s need for 3-D hardware acceleration. Since Trisquel — like gNewSense — is one of the few completely free-licensed distributions, this requirement is unacceptable to the development team because it often requires proprietary video drivers.

As Rubicon Rodriguez of Trisquel says, “That would keep pushing distributions to forget about freedom and include proprietary drivers as a default.”

However, free drivers that can run Unity do exist, such as those for Intel video cards, so Trisquel plans to include Unity in its repositories.

Rodriguez raises the question of using the 2-D version of Unity that is currently in development.

Yet, even then, he says, Trisquel would not use Unity “as we see no appeal in trying to differentiate our product by copying the MacOS interface (which is worse than GNOME’s in terms of usability).”

These sentiments are echoed by several other Ubuntu derivatives. For instance, the developers of Zorin consider Unity unsuitable to their goal of providing a Windows 7-like interface as well as suffering from a “lack of customizability.”

More specifically, Tony Sales, who develops Vinux, a derivative designed for the visually impaired, states that “Unity is not yet accessible to a degree where it is usable by a blind user.

Ubuntu themselves have acknowledged this by the fact that if you select the blind profile at boot you get the Gnome desktop, not Unity.”

While open to reconsidering Unity later, for now Sales suggests that users are going to “feel like they are being forced into using something different because the designers decided to change it.”

A more detailed critique is given by Artist X’s Marco Ghirlana, who gives as one reason for not using Unity that “most of our users are in poor countries and they have no Macs” that might give them some familiarity with the Unity interface.

Ghirlana also cites his own usability testing. “When I tried Unity on computer illiterates, they were less productive and took ages to understand the concepts behind it. When I show them how to use it, they said that it is pretty to see but hard to use.”

An even more detailed usability critique of Unity is offered by Stephen Ewen of UberStudent, which plans on staying with GNOME 2.

“Unity’s design decreases both visual and functional accessibility, which tabulates to decreased productivity,” Ewen writes.

“That alone is a deal-breaker in light of UberStudent’s mission to increase the academic success of higher education and advanced secondary students.”

According to Ewen, Unity’s positioning of controls, means that “users must constantly travel to the upper-left of their screen to access program menus.

This creates problems for people who wish to interact with more than one program at a time.”

He also criticizes the main menu’s “enormous size” on the grounds that “if one wishes to view many programs at a glance within the sub-categories, Unity obscures the possibility.

This means that the brain cannot map as quickly to program categories and subcategories, which again means further decreased productivity.”

Although Ewen rates Unity as “scant better than GNOME 3,” he worries that both new interfaces will only encourage “balkanization” on the Linux desktop.

Many of the developers of derivatives share the wait and see attitude of the major distributions.

However, their closer connection to Ubuntu — as well as the fact that adopting Unity as their default would mean less work for them — makes their reservations about the new interface all the more damning.

If the major distributions are simply unconvinced, then the Ubuntu-derivatives seem to be deciding against it.

A Sign Of Things To Come?

These opinions are worth hearing, because they come from experienced users and developers, some of whom have done their own usability testing.

They are not the casual reactions of users, but of people who have strong motivations for examining Unity carefully.

Nor do the reactions appear spiteful — if anything, their attitude seems to be mild curiosity and well-reasoned disappointment.

Yet the implications could be even more interesting. Assuming that these reactions are representative, then Unity is failing to gain broad acceptance.

Even more importantly, considering that the criticisms are about Unity’s basic structure — and not just about missing features — you might wonder if any modifications to Unity could make it a popular choice.

And, should that be true, how long will Ubuntu continue to pour resources into a project that lacks popular appeal?

Ubuntu, could, of course, decide to ignore negative reactions for several releases.

Perhaps Ubuntu is even large enough that it could ignore such reactions indefinitely, particularly since Unity is not aimed at experienced Linux users like the kind who work on other distributions.

All the same, these early reactions leave Ubuntu looking isolated, and for Ubuntu to insist too strongly on Unity might only increase that isolation.

Ubuntu already looks estranged from the free software community after its disputes with GNOME and its insistence on forming new projects or supporting smaller ones rather than becoming involved with mainstream ones. In the end, Unity might only increase that estrangement.

Possibly, future versions of Unity can defy expectations and win critics over. But in the developers of other distros, Ubuntu and Unity face a skeptical audience that is not going to be easily impressed.

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.
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